Imagine a club team that categorically refuses to sign players from a specific minority group. Now imagine that said team is the only one in its league to never sign a player from that group, even though players from that group star on the national team and make up 20 percent of the country’s population. Imagine a manager explicitly saying, in 2015, that he wouldn’t sign a player from that group and fans of that club regularly assaulting fans from that group, openly chanting, both inside and outside the stadium, about wanting people from that group to die. It sounds crazy, even in the batshit crazy world of soccer.
In Italy and Russia, teams have been repeatedly skewered in international headlines for much less. But the team we’re talking about is from Israel, where stories are handled with kid gloves or ignored in the name of complexity. But even if one is to concede a level of complexity in certain aspects of Arab-Israeli life, not every area is grey, and not all grey areas are created equally.
The Israeli club in question is Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar’s coach, Guy Levi, recently caused a stir when, as reported by Haaretz, he talked to a radio station about the prospect of bringing in Arab players:
“It doesn’t matter that this is the right time; it would create tension and cause much greater damage. I won’t find any player from the Arab sector who would want to. Even if there was a player who suited me professionally, I wouldn’t bring him, because it would create unnecessary tension.”
Levi’s position doesn’t sound completely unreasonable. He’s just looking out for everyone’s best interests, right? Well, not necessarily, even though that may be his intention.
His comment, in addition to being wildly patronizing, presupposes either a future of reasonable tension levels or that the way it is now is the way it will always be. It harkens to every excuse made in the apartheid days of both the United States and South Africa, when rationalizing deplorable behavior was the activity du jour. If those days taught us anything, it’s that the right time to integrate for majority populations is very often never, or at least not until tension levels rise to the level some deem unnecessary and others deem vital. Otherwise, you live content with a status quo where the hardcore dictate the the terms of change.
In early 2013, Beitar’s Russian-Israeli owner Arkady Gaydamak defied many of the club’s fans and signed two Chechen Muslim players, Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev. Beitar fans, largely spearheaded by the club’s most hardcore fans, La Familia, were irate. Not even a month could pass before members of La Familia broke out the torches (literally), burning down part of the team’s clubhouse in retaliation.
A few weeks later, when Sadayev scored for Beitar, hundreds of Beitar fans walked out of the stadium (at 0:54).
Now, La Familia doesn’t represent all Beitar fans, and Levi’s rationale may not sound entirely unreasonable to certain ears. But in the context of La Familia’s strong-arming, the endless chants and banners broadly disparaging Arab populations — both Israeli Arabs and non-Israeli Arabs — Levi’s comments are just the latest in a long history of an infrastructure — from FIFA down through UEFA, the Israeli Football Association and Beitar’s staff — condoning some of the worst fan behavior you’ll find anywhere.
Levi’s comments were recently rebuked by Israel’s Equal Opportunities Employment Commission. A statement said that the Beitar coach’s remarks create a “suspicion of racism in contravention of the law prohibiting discrimination based on nationality, among other things in acceptance to employment.”
The statement continued:
“The remarks of the current coach show that the ways of the team go completely against its declaration at that press conference and that ostensibly it maintains a policy of discrimination in a context of nationality and religion.”
The declaration alluded to in the statement refers to promises Beitar made at a 2013 press conference after a club representative, Haim Revivo, one of Israel’s all-time great players, said: “We do not seek to bring in an Arab player and provoke the fans. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do.” Beitar promised to bring in Arab players if “the right ones” were found.
So here we are again, having the same discussion. Beitar’s still playing in league competition and currently sit in fourth place; its hardcore fans still show up to games spouting hate; the coach has apparently given up looking for “the right ones”; and the league, UEFA, and FIFA haven’t really said or done anything of substance about the situation.
Remember that the next time you see one of these signs trotted out at the next UEFA Champions League game.